While more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq continue trying to impose security in advance of the June 30 handover of limited sovereignty to the new Iraqi administration, the security situation in nearby Afghanistan continues to deteriorate.
With national elections scheduled for just three months away, observers say that tribal warlords, as well as resurgent Taliban forces, appear as strong as at any time since the Taliban were ousted 30 months ago, making it increasingly unlikely that the balloting, if it even goes forward, will be judged free and fair by international and other observers.
"Trends are going the wrong way," according to Mark Schneider, the Washington director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution think-tank. "Militias around the country pose a threat to the possibility of any credible elections taking place."
In Afghanistan, the US has some 20,000 troops mostly chasing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, yet the country receives little attention.
That was made painfully clear last week when visiting President Hamid Karzai, resplendent in his trademark peacock-green cape, received virtually no media attention at all despite his address to a joint session of Congress and his joint appearance with President George W Bush for a White House Rose Garden press conference, during which he remained largely silent as his host fended off questions about US abuses of detainees in both Afghanistan and Iraq and the domestic economy.
Officially, Washington remains upbeat about Afghanistan. Addressing a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, ambassador William Taylor, the State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, insisted that United Nations officials had registered more than 4 million voters to date and that as many as 100,000 more were being registered each day. He said about 36% of the registrants were women.
The UN estimates the total number of eligible voters in Afghanistan at a little more than 10 million. "If we get at least 6 million voters registered," Taylor said, "that will be a critical mass."
At the same time, the envoy admitted that the security situation leaves much to be desired and could easily interfere with the fairness of the upcoming election, which will determine the presidency and the lower house of parliament.
"This is not going to be pretty," he said, noting that local militias, many of them fueled by revenues from the thriving opium trade, are likely to practice intimidation against voters, particularly in the balloting for parliament.
The lack of security was made distressingly clear just in the past few days, as the Karzai-appointed governor of Ghor province was chased from his capital after clashes between the provincial army chief and a rival militia that reportedly killed at least 10 people. The incident was the third in recent months where a governor had been forced to flee his post by warlords.
US military casualties, although still minimal compared to Iraq, have also risen sharply, even as Washington increased the number of troops it is devoting to fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the mainly Pashtun south and southeast, particularly along the border with Pakistan.
In addition, more aid workers - at least 18, five of them foreign nationals - have been killed by suspected Taliban forces than at any time since US-backed forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001. As a result, many non-governmental organizations have withdrawn their staff, bringing reconstruction efforts to a standstill.
In addition to the US troops, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has some 6,500 peacekeepers in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), all of whom, however, are confined to Kabul. Another 250 German-led troops make up a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) assigned to Kunduz, a relatively quiet northern city.
NATO pledged to provide the equipment (including helicopters) and troops to supply another four PRTs to strategic cities around the country in order to extend Karzai's authority well into the countryside and stabilize the situation through the deployment of rapid-reaction forces there, but these have not been forthcoming - to the great frustration of the US, as well as Karzai himself.
With US troops seeking to engage the Taliban and al-Qaeda, "Karzai's writ is pretty much co-terminous with [the] NATO-ISAF [forces]," according to John Stuart Blackton, a counter-insurgency specialist who directs Strategic Advisory Services, a military consultancy group. He noted that the weekend's events in Ghor province were "emblematic [of the] collapse of the central government's authority".
As to who could take on the warlords and regional chiefs at this point to extend Kabul's authority, Blackton said the Afghan National Army was still too small and inexperienced, while it was not within NATO's mandate, and the US still considers the hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda a higher priority.
NATO's failure so far to fulfill its commitments, according to Schneider, virtually ensures that elections in the countryside will not be fairly conducted in September. "Unless you have an expanded security force outside Kabul, I don't see how you're going to have international observers," he said, noting that three UN election workers, including two British security experts, were killed by suspected Taliban forces in Nuristan province last month.
A free and fair election "is definitely not going to take place if these militias are still operating", he went on, noting that the schedule for the disarmament and demobilization of at least 100,000 militia fighters is lagging hopelessly behind. Political parties without an armed wing simply "won't be able to participate in the elections without fear".
The reticence of Washington's NATO allies to provide more troops derives from a number of factors, according to both Schneider and Blackton.
The fact that the US opposed ISAF's expansion into the countryside because it feared that the peacekeepers might interfere with US military operations until last summer resulted in a serious loss of momentum, Schneider said. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq resulted in a loss of political influence - of "soft power" - in the capitals of its European allies, according to Blackton.
"Afghanistan policy is hostage to Iraq policy," he said, noting that Washington's own forces have become over-stretched as a result of the Iraq occupation, as well.
Even Taylor, who initially blamed the "usual suspects" in Europe for NATO's failure to deliver, admitted that Washington's pressure on its NATO allies to contribute as well to Iraq had "complicated the discussion".
Schneider said neither the US nor NATO/ISAF is taking on the exploding opium production, which is expected to hit all-time highs this year, and could account for as much as half the country's estimated gross domestic product. Much of the proceeds, according to Schneider and other experts, are funding militias, some of which have cooperated with US forces.
Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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